Shadow of Pep Guardiola Made Carlo Ancelotti a Man out of Time at Bayern

Ancelotti

Munich – When Bayern Munich came to London in March to face Arsenal, following one 5-1 victory and just about to register another, everything seemed rosy in the kingdom of FC Hollywood. Sure, their football in the Bundesliga had hardly been edge-of-the-seat stuff, but Carlo Ancelotti spoke confidently, almost bullishly, of his team before the game in the press room at the Emirates Stadium.

He talked of his side approaching their physical best and of their “real energy”. It felt like his plan to take them back to Champions League glory – the reason that he was appointed to replace Pep Guardiola in the first place – was coming together at the right time. It felt like Bayern could be becoming Ancelotti’s team at last.

Once we walked up into the stands to see Bayern go through an innocuous 15-minute warm-up in the chill of a north London evening, it became clear that was perhaps less the case than the Italian would like to believe. The players immediately organized themselves into a high-tempo rondo – the piggy-in-the-middle one-touch game so beloved of Guardiola that set the tone in his reign from the very beginning. For all the world’s media, the indelible mark left on the squad by the Catalan tactician was plain to see.

It is living in the shadow of Guardiola that has ultimately cost Ancelotti his post at Bayern. The club’s management always knew there would be a drop-off in intensity when Guardiola – to their disappointment – left, and there was even the suggestion in some quarters that might not be a bad thing. Working under Guardiola is demanding and some of the squad, notably Franck Ribéry, had become tired of his micro-management.

Yet those players who breathed a sigh of relief at seeing the back of his three-line whip perhaps came to crave its return. They went from being kept on a short leash to being allowed to run around the park for hours. Still, as Bayern have underachieved this season, there has been a lot of dishonest revision of Ancelotti’s attributes, or apparent lack thereof.

Some have even gone as far as to suggest he does not do anything. This is plainly nonsense – ask Paris Saint-Germain, who mourned his loss for a prolonged period after his 2013 departure. Ancelotti showed PSG what being an elite club was all about, getting the players into the habit of recuperating and spending time with each other at Camp des Loges – just as the great Milan teams did at Milanello – and persuading the likes of Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic that the club were for real. “Paris lui doit tellement” – Paris owe him so much – said the headline in Wednesday’s L’Equipe, on the eve of that ultimately ruinous defeat at Parc des Princes. For those who thought Ancelotti has no eye for detail, there was even the anecdote that he ordered ball-boys for training in his time at PSG to minimize the dead time between exercises.

Tactical nuance, however, clearly is not his thing, and this began to frustrate the German champions’ squad – and those upstairs, who had seen Guardiola create a discernible Bayern brand of football. International observers may keep coming back to Guardiola’s failure to take Bayern back to the Champions League final in his three-year spell, but locals will remind you the football that the team produced in that time was out of this world.

Such peaks were the product of no let-up. That is not Ancelotti’s style, and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge knew that when he appointed him. The lack of dazzle in Bundesliga action did not cause any initial alarm – if underwhelming domestically meant having plenty left in the tank for the final stages of the Champions League, then that was a price that Bayern were prepared to pay to allow Ancelotti to work his magic.

The majesty with which they overwhelmed Arsenal was all too brief, though, and the awful second half performance in the quarter-final, first leg against Real Madrid was the beginning of the end for the coach. Rummenigge may have spent a long time bemoaning the officiating in the second leg at the Bernabéu but deep down, he knew what he saw at the Allianz Arena the week before – his team, faced with a setback against a high-quality opponent for one of the first times that season, and with absolutely no answer to it.

Accordingly, Bayern went into this season with what amounted to a lame duck head coach, with the hope that he would keep everything shipshape until Julian Nagelsmann could arrive with a new energy next summer. A series of disjointed performances, a pertinent loss to Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim and scarcely-concealed rebellion in public comments by Thomas Müller, Robert Lewandowski and, after the humbling in Paris, Arjen Robben has brought things to a head sooner than Rummenigge or Uli Hoeness would like.

Whether right now is the right moment for Nagelsmann is questionable – he is a prodigious talent but still only 30. In the meantime, Bayern have turned once again to Jupp Heynckes, appointing him manager for the fourth time since 1987. During his last stint, he led Bayern to win the treble in 2013. In his fourth stint, Heynckes will not only be required to bring in new ideas to the club, but he will have to quickly put a lid on any dressing-room unrest.

Ancelotti will walk away with his reputation largely undamaged, and that is fair. He was maybe the right type of coach for Bayern at completely the wrong moment.

The Guardian Sport

Manchester City Justify Pep Guardiola’s £130m Spent on Full-Backs

Manchester City’s left-back Benjamin Mendy bursts past Daryl Janmaat of Watford during the visitors 6-0 win at Vicarage Road.

Jaws dropped and heads shook when Manchester City spent around £130m on three full-backs this summer. In financial terms that sum meant little to City’s infinitely rich Abu Dhabi rulers. But on the pitch the sense of those investments is becoming clear. They nearly complete City’s team.

The two most expensive of those full-backs, Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy, each cost more than £50m, about double what City paid Real Madrid for the third, Danilo. Walker and Mendy could not be deployed together for the first few matches of this campaign because of injury and suspension, but they have started City’s last three games and the opposition have paid a heavy price. Liverpool, Feyenoord and Watford have been demolished by a combined score of 15-0.

In those matches Mendy and Walker dominated their flanks, flying up and down relentlessly in a way that showed “full-back” to be an outdated label. They also showed how far past it last season’s counterparts were, once-fine performers such as Bacary Sagna, Gaël Clichy, Pablo Zabaleta and Aleksandar Kolarov having become creaking thirty-somethings unable to contribute like the new thrusters.

“[Mendy and Walker] are having a big impact, Danilo too,” says Pep Guardiola. “They are young – Mendy is 23 and Kyle (27) is also young enough. They have huge energy to go up and it stretches our play and means we can have more players in the middle to do the short passes. I like our passes to be three, four, five or six metres, no more than that. It gives us continuity. We create spaces in behind and you need players in those positions. Without these signings it would have been more complicated.”

Guardiola’s description of the impact was particularly accurate at Vicarage Road, as Mendy and Walker’s raids enabled Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva to flit in-field as they pleased. The pair tormented the hosts. De Bruyne, mind you, is evidently exempt from his manager’s six-metre guideline, his visionary short- and long-range passing making him a marvellous law unto himself.

Silva, too, conjures at will. His cross from the left led to Nicolás Otamendi nodding in City’s fourth goal at Watford. With Sergio Agüero scoring a hat-trick, creating a goal for Gabriel Jesus and allowing Raheem Sterling to convert a late penalty, the hosts were overwhelmed despite not playing badly. City could have hit double figures.

For all that, City have also benefitted from other factors during their recent run: Liverpool were weakened by the sending-off of Sadio Mané, and Watford were missing their first-choice centre-backs through injury and complained, correctly, that two of City’s first three goals should have been disallowed for offside. Those are important details even if it can feel like nitpicking to point them out given how formidable City have seemed. Similarly, the fact that Watford hinted at lingering problems in City’s central defence when they threatened from a couple of late set-pieces does not mean that Guardiola’s team did not deserve to win heavily. But the Catalan knows his team are not perfect. “After this [win at Watford] it looks like ‘oh no, we cannot improve. But of course we can improve! There are still movements and actions we can improve.”

Guardiola notes the progress from last season but also knows that the biggest gauge so far of how much they have improved will come at the end of this month, when they travel to Stamford Bridge. Antonio Conte’s team beat City home and away on their way to the title last season.

“I think we have made steps forward,” he says. “Last season we did not win a game away in the Champions League and now we have done that. We won a lot of games away in the Premier League [12 out of 19] but this kind of performance [against Watford] we did not see. We will see when we go to face last season’s champions what our level is.”

(The Gurdian)

Pep Guardiola’s Circular Dressing Room Offers One Way to Split Up Team Cliques

Pep

London- The butt of much public mockery when Sky’s cameras captured assorted well-heeled corporate clients peering through its walls of two‑way glass last Monday night, Manchester City’s Tunnel Club is the most amusing but not necessarily most interesting renovation to have been undertaken at the Etihad Stadium during the close season. Moving on from the well fed and watered supporters staring in slack-jawed wonder at the exhibits as they prepared for battle, the cameras also gave us a glimpse of an inner sanctum that, for the time being at least, remains closed to prying eyes on match days.

The stadium’s home dressing room is as opulent as you might expect for such a wealthy club, but it is its sheer roundness that is most striking. Returning for his early plunge in the state-of-the-art hydrotherapy pool after being sent off on his home debut, Kyle Walker will no doubt have been struck by the rotational symmetry of his surroundings as he angrily flung his shin pads into one of the corners that aren’t there, before being enveloped in the life-affirming chi that feng shui experts tell us a 360-degree dwelling space provides.

Harmonising his players with their surroundings may not have been uppermost in Pep Guardiola’s mind when he signed off on the summer redesign of the home dressing room, but the decision to make it circular was a very conscious one. Much like the knights who convened around the famous table of Arthurian legend, all men who sit in Guardiola’s similarly shaped sanctuary enjoy equal status and the Spaniard is understood to have encouraged the design as a way of discouraging that most pernicious and malign of influences on team morale: the dressing room clique.

Far from exclusive to football and regularly held up as one of the root causes for the poor performances of sports teams who fail to live up to the sum of their parts, these exclusive close-knit groups within groups are the bane of managers whose desperation to eliminate them in the interests of team or squad harmony occasionally extends to actually fretting over meal-time seating arrangements for grown adults like a bride and groom meticulously plotting to minimise the potential for internecine strife at their wedding reception.

England’s football squad has long been renowned for its cliquishness and as the players gather for the first international break of the season, we can only speculate as to how damaging division among the ranks has been for morale in a national team that has consistently come up short since 1990. It would be naive to assume more inclusive England squads might have enjoyed greater success at international tournaments, or to imagine more successful teams – hello France, Germany and Spain – have not also been adversely affected by internal divides. For all that, the ease with which England habitually qualify for major tournaments compared with the horror show that invariably unfolds once the players have been confined to barracks for five or six weeks does little to dispel the notion that the more time they spend cloistered together, the less cohesive their performances tend to be.

In a newspaper column he wrote before England’s doomed Euro 2016 campaign, Rio Ferdinand mentioned the cliques which were immediately apparent upon his introduction to the England squad as a teenager. “You had [Alan] Shearer’s table and all his mates,” he said. “You had the Liverpool table and all the dregs like a couple of Arsenal and a couple of West Ham like me. Then there was the United table.”

His description of a squad divided was more or less confirmed by his fellow West Ham alumnus Dean Ashton, who seemed genuinely baffled by arrangements when he was called up by Steve McClaren in 2006. “I was warned beforehand that it [the squad] could be a bit cliquey – with the Liverpool boys sticking together, Manchester United, Chelsea and it very much was like that,” he recalled. “There was very much a feeling of when you first go into a classroom and no one really wants to talk to you. I mean, I was there for a few days, and there were some senior players that didn’t speak to me for the whole time I was there, which I just found totally bizarre.”

In an interview published in the Guardian last year, the former England rugby team psychologist Jeremy Snape cited Leicester City’s unlikely march to the Premier League title as the very antithesis of a team suffering from the adverse affects of a tribe being rent asunder by internal cliquishness. “The excitement of doing something special would have galvanised their individual differences, focused their minds on strategies and roles, and maintained their physical training until the very end of the season,” he said, before warning that future difficulties would lie in “maintaining that hunger and selflessness when so much in their lives will have changed”. Sure enough, shortly into the following season the cracks began to appear.

A thoughtful man and manager, Gareth Southgate will be aware of the need to abolish cliques in his squad while simultaneously treating his players like the grown men they are. In 2015 as head of the England youth team set-up, he was forced to deny allegations of racial divisions in the under-20 squad in the face of fairly incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. In photos published by several newspapers, either through accident or design the boys in question happened to be dining at a couple of round tables. All equal as squad members, the white players were seated together around one of them while their black team-mates occupied the other.

The Guardian Sport

Guardiola: My Debt to Andrés Iniesta and how he Opened my Eyes on Tactics

Iniesta

Barcelona – Late summer 2008. Barcelona lose 1–0 in Soria against little Numancia on the opening day of the league season. A tough baptism for the debutant coach, Pep Guardiola, made all the harder when the result isn’t much better in their second game against Racing Santander, a 1–1 draw at the Camp Nou. Two weeks into Guardiola’s career in charge of Barcelona’s first team and they still haven’t won.

Pressure builds, the criticism is intense. But Guardiola remains steadfast. Sergio Busquets and Pedro Rodríguez, then two virtually unknown players from Tercera División, Spain’s fourth tier, are in the team. There are doubts, of course. Concerns.

In the media, it seems that only one voice defends the manager, but at least it is the voice: Johan Cruyff. That softens the blow, his authority alone enough to challenge the doomsayers, but still they prophesise doom. “This Barcelona looks very, very good,” Cruyff writes in his weekly column for El Periódico de Catalunya. “I don’t know what game the rest of you watched; the one I watched was unlike any I have seen at the Camp Nou in a long time.”

Cruyff, the great ideologue of the Catalan club, its philosopher king, had seen Guardiola coach the B team and was impressed; now he stands against the tide, alone in defending him. “The worst start to a season in many years. Just one goal scored, and that was a penalty. That’s an inescapable truth, numerically speaking,” he admits. “But in footballing terms, this must be read a different way. And Guardiola is the first to read it differently. He’s no novice, lacking expertise, and he is not suicidal. He watches, he sees, he analyses and he takes decisions.”

Guardiola himself agonized over those decisions too. He was holed up in his Camp Nou office, down in the basement where there was no natural light, going over the situation again and again, rewinding and replaying the videos, re-reading his notes, wondering what to change but convinced of one thing: his idea, Cruyff’s idea, had to be maintained. He would persevere, however hard it became. And support was about to come from an unexpected source.

He was still going over it, endlessly, when he heard a knock at the door. “Come in.”

“Hello, míster.”

A small figure poked his head around the door, and spoke calmly. “Don’t worry, míster. We’ll win it all. We’re on the right path. Carry on like this, OK? We’re playing brilliantly, we’re enjoying training. Please, don’t change anything,” said Andrés Iniesta.

Guardiola couldn’t believe it.

The request was short, but heartfelt, deep. It caught Guardiola off guard, barely able even to respond. If it was a surprise that anyone should seek him out to say that, it was even more of a surprise that it was Iniesta, usually the silent man. And then he closed the door and left.

That’s Andrés. He doesn’t say much, only what he really has to. It’s like scoring goals: he doesn’t score often, either. But when it’s needed, there he is.

Guardiola will never forget Cruyff defending him in print. And he will never forget Andrés appearing at his door. He’ll never forget that they were right, too. At the end of the 2008–09 season, Barcelona had won six titles. All six.

“People usually think that it is the coach who has to raise the spirits of his players; that it is the coach who has to convince his footballers; that it is his job to take the lead all the time,” says Guardiola. “But that’s not always the case. It wasn’t the case at the Camp Nou for me, and in my first year at Bayern Munich something similar happened as well. It’s not often things like that happen and when they do, they rarely come to light. People always think the coach is the strongest person at a club, the boss, but in truth he’s the weakest link. We’re there, vulnerable, undermined by those who don’t play, by the media, by the fans. They all have the same objective: to undermine the manager.

“You start, you lose at Numancia, you draw with Racing, you just can’t get going, you feel watched and you feel alone and then suddenly, there’s Andrés telling me not to worry,” Guardiola continues. “It’s hard to imagine, because it’s not the kind of thing that happens and because it’s Iniesta we’re talking about, someone who doesn’t find it easy to express his feelings. And after he’d gone, I asked myself: how can people say that coaches should be cold when they make decisions? Impersonal? That’s ridiculous! How can I be cold, distant, removed with Andrés? Sorry, no way. Eighty-six per cent of people didn’t believe in me [according to an online poll]. Lots of people wanted Mourinho. We hadn’t won, hadn’t got going. And then Andrés comes and says that! How am I supposed to be cold? It’s impossible. This goes deeper. This isn’t cold, calculated, and nor should it be. There’s no doubt: Andrés will play with me, always. Because he’s the best. And because things like that don’t get forgotten. Why did he come to my office? I don’t know.”

Lorenzo Buenaventura is a part of Guardiola’s coaching staff, in charge of physical preparation. He has followed Pep from Barcelona to Bayern and from there to Manchester City. He shares this memory with Pep now, offers up an answer too.

“Why? I suppose because that’s the way he felt; I suppose because it mattered to him,” he says. “Andrés doesn’t do anything he doesn’t truly believe in; he does it because it feels right to him. He’s genuine, always.” Guardiola concedes: “Maybe he spoke out because he could see that there was a method we were following, that everyone was training well, that we explained to them why we did things the way we did, and above all because that was the kind of football that he had been brought up on, ever since he was little.”

“There were other players who sent us little messages,” Buenaventura insists. “That’s true,” Guardiola admits. “But Andrés’ message was powerful. How could I forget that? I can still see him standing there at the door, looking at me. Telling me we play very well. And then he left. I thought: ‘Well, if Andrés says so …’”

Andrés and Cruyff were proven right; Guardiola’s decision to maintain that philosophy was vindicated. In week three Barcelona scored six against Sporting Gijón and never looked back; everything fell into place, it all worked so smoothly. Within a few months, they had become a model to aspire to. Not just because of the results – no one had won a treble in Spain before, still less six trophies from six – but because of the way they played, the way they treated the ball, fans, even opponents. Theirs was a different approach, a way of seeing and expressing football that was embodied by players like Iniesta.

“We never seem to treat Andrés the way we should; we don’t seem to recognize him. He’s the absolute business as a player,” Guardiola says. “He never talks about himself, never demands anything, but people who think he’s satisfied just to play are wrong. If he thought he could win the Balon d’Or one year, he’d want to win it. Why? Because he’d say to himself: ‘I’m the best.’

“I think Paco defined him perfectly,” Guardiola says. Paco Seirulo was Barcelona’s former physical coach, the man from whom Lorenzo Buenaventura learnt; now Guardiola makes Seirulo’s description his own. “Andrés is one of the greats. Why? Because of his mastery of the relationship between space and time. He knows where he is at every moment. Even in a midfield where he’s surrounded by countless players, he chooses the right path every time. He knows where and when, always. And then he has this very unique ability to pull away. He pulls out, then brakes, then pulls out again, then brakes again. There are very few players like him.

“There are footballers who are very good playing on the outside but don’t know what to do inside. Then there are players who are very good inside but don’t have the physique, the legs, to go outside. Andrés has the ability to do both. When you’re out on the touchline, like a winger, it is easier to play. You see everything: the mess, the crowd, the activity is all inside. When you play inside, you don’t see anything in there because so much is happening in such a small space and all around you. You don’t know where the opposition is going to come at you from, or how many of them. Great footballers are those who know how to play in both of those environments. Andrés doesn’t only have the ability to see everything, to know what to do, but also the talent to execute it; he’s able to break through those lines. He sees it and does it.

“I’ve been a coach for a few years now and I have come to the conclusion that a truly good player is always a good player,” Guardiola says. “It’s very hard to teach a bad player to be a good one. You can’t really teach someone to dribble. The timing needed to go past someone, that instant in which you catch out your opponent, when you go past him and a new scenario opens up before you … Dribbling is, at heart, a trick, a con. It’s not speed. It’s not physique. It’s an art.”

Lorenzo Buenaventura says: “What happens is that Andrés brakes. That’s the key, the most important thing. People say: ‘Look how quick he is!’ No, no, that’s not the point. It’s not about speed, about how fast he goes; what it’s really about is how he stops and when, then, how he gets moving again.”

Guardiola adds: “Tito Vilanova defined him very well. Tito used to say: ‘Andrés doesn’t run, he glides. He’s like an ice hockey player, only without skates on. Sssswishhh, sssswishhh, sssswishhhh …’ That description is evocative, very graphic, and I think it’s an accurate one. He goes towards one side as if he was skating, watching everything that’s going on around him. Then, suddenly, he turns the other way with that smoothness he has. Yes, that’s it, Andrés doesn’t run, he glides.”

Guardiola adds: “Sometimes in life, it’s first impressions that count and the first impression I have of Andrés was the day my brother Pere, who was working for Nike at the time, told me about Iniesta. I was still playing for Barcelona myself and he said: ‘Pep, you’ve got to come and see this kid.’ It was before the final of the Nike Cup. I remember getting changed quickly after training and rushing there, dashing to the stadium. And yes, I saw how good he was. I told myself: ‘This kid will play for Barcelona, for sure … he’s going to make it.’ I told myself that, and I told Pere that too.

“On my way out of the ground after that final when Andrés was the best player on the pitch, I came across Santiago Segurola, the football writer. I said to him: ‘I’ve just seen something incredible.’ I had this feeling that what I’d just witnessed was unique. That was my first impression of Andrés.

“But later,” Guardiola admits, “I came to really value something else Andrés does, something that he had made me see with time: the importance of attacking the center-backs. No one does it. But watch and you see it. If the central defender has to step out, everything opens up; the whole defense becomes disorganized and spaces appear that weren’t there before. It’s all about breaking through lines to find space behind them. Open, then find.

“For example, we set up our attack so that Leo Messi could attack the central defenders,” Guardiola explains. “We had to attack in such a way as to get the ball to Andrés and Leo so that they could attack the central defenders and that opened them up. When we managed that, we knew that we would win the game because Leo scored goals and Andrés generated everything else: dribbling, numerical superiority, the ability to unbalance the game, the final pass, both to the outside and filtered through the middle. He sees it all and he has that gift for dribbling that’s so unique to him. That dribbling ability is everything today. And it was Andrés who opened my eyes to the importance of an inside forward or midfielder being able to dribble too. If he dribbles, if he carries the ball and goes at people, everything flows. With time, I saw that.”

The Guardian Sport

Transfer System Isn’t Perfect but Premier League Plans Don’t Make Sense

League

London – The news that Premier League clubs are considering closing the transfer window before the season starts is not a particular surprise. Complaints from virtually everyone in the game are long-standing that transfer business dragging on alongside actual football provides too much of a distraction as rumors fly, agents scheme and players sulk.

Philippe Coutinho’s situation was the most prominent recent example: a back injury was the official reason for his unavailability for Liverpool’s first four games, not Barcelona’s looming with an enormous pile of cash.

There was already plenty to do in the first month of a season: formations to mull over, players to assess, panics to calm, the optimism of pre-season shattered or inflated. On top of this managers have to deal with constant questions about who is leaving and who is coming in, the implication being that buying players is the one true way to solve any problem a team might have.

Few had a good word to say about the state of affairs. “It would have helped us this year,” said Jürgen Klopp when asked if the window should have shut earlier. “It’s a huge mistake from Uefa,” said Pep Guardiola this summer. “I think the market should finish when we start the season. It’s too long, too large.” And back in 2015 Arsène Wenger said: “Does it bother me the window is still open? Yes, because it creates uncertainties. At the start of the season everybody should be committed, not half-in, half-out.”

The sense that the whole thing is a media construct is difficult to escape, all leading up to the “event” of deadline day as exasperated Sky Sports reporters stand in car parks, bringing the nation news of what amounts to admin being completed in the buildings behind them, presumably strongly considering the life choices that led them to this point.

Changing the parameters of the transfer window would simply bring that forward but it would at least eliminate the absurdity of those times when matches are played on August 31. This year deadline day fell in the middle of the international break, which provided even more japes.

And yet the opportunity to sign players while games are still going on can be a positive too, simply because managers can make more informed decisions on what works and what does not. We are all aware that pre-season games mean little, so why should teams make decisions they are stuck with until January based on them?

“You can look at it either way really – whether it’s glass half-full or empty,” Derby County’s manager Gary Rowett told the Guardian recently. “It would make life a lot easier if the transfer window finished the day before the season starts but I think there’s an advantage in that, if you’re three or four games in and you feel like you’re missing something, you’ve still got an opportunity to strengthen.”

It makes sense. A manager might think his team are fine throughout the summer but once they play some real games he might realize the midfield is no good or the center-forward has lost his touch or the player earmarked as a wing-back cannot handle the running. A few weeks in August with the transfer window still open might not be ideal but at least it gives teams a chance to fix things based on reliable evidence.

Additionally this change would not actually solve many problems if only Premier League clubs agree to it. Any attempt to implement this change across Europe would be a logistical impossibility, given the different times at which seasons begin. Had the English transfer window closed on August 10 this year, it would still have been open for the rest of Europe for another three weeks, meaning Coutinho would still have been looking up flights to Barcelona. At least this way, if a player makes such a scene or an offer so big arrives that a club has little alternative but to sell, they can still replace him: if Premier League clubs treat themselves as an island and end only their own window early, they could be left with the worst of all worlds.

Of course the alternative is to scrap the transfer window altogether and return to the days when moves could occur throughout the season. Panic-buying would be eliminated and Daniel Levy could spread his work over weeks rather than cramming it into one day. It is worth remembering, too, that transfer windows take away the option for poorer clubs to raise quick cash by selling a player.

But do we really want that? Would Wenger, Guardiola and Klopp really welcome the distraction of being asked in every press conference about transfers, rather than just in August and January? At least this way they – and we – can broadly concentrate on actual football between September and December, then February and May.

The way the transfer system is set up is a far from perfect. Perhaps removing transfer windows altogether would ultimately be beneficial. But Premier League clubs voting to end it early simply because it makes things less messy for them feels like a halfway house that could simply create more problems.

The Guardian Sport

Kevin De Bruyne’s Perfect Touch Delights Pep Guardiola, Keeps Silvas at Bay

sport

London- Just before the hour mark, and as Gabriel Jesus was replaced by Leroy Sané amid applause from the home supporters on the back of a devastating display in front of goal, Kevin De Bruyne could be seen speaking with David Silva and Sergio Agüero. The Belgian went over to each in turn and appeared to be telling them what to do. It was impossible to pick up what he was saying, but given everything that had happened up until then, it would not have been a surprise to have learned that his message was a simple one: “Keep going, lads, I’ve got this.”

Manchester City’s biggest home win over Liverpool since September 1935 was a collective pummelling – and one aided by Sadio Mané’s initially controversial, but ultimately justified, sending-off – but what it highlighted amid the showers and sunshine of an early autumn afternoon is just how good De Bruyne is, and just how central he could be, in more ways than one, to City reclaiming their status as champions.

The 26-year-old was sensational here, assisting City’s first two goals, scored by Agüero and Jesus, playing a role in their fourth – put away by Sané – and generally providing a muscular, intelligent and technically excellent display from an advanced midfield position.

De Bruyne did not stand out by a distance among those in blue, but he did stand out, and at times appeared to be playing a completely different game to everyone else, such was the time and space he was able to find on the pitch. Little wonder Agüero and Silva listened so intently to his instructions – they knew as much as anyone that De Bruyne was in control of proceedings; that he well and truly had this.

“I am so happy with his performance,” said Pep Guardiola of City’s No17. “He is good on balls on the feet. He is good running, attacking the space. He is a complete player, one of our captains.”

With his two assists here, De Bruyne has now provided 39 in all competitions since arriving from Wolfsburg for £51m in August 2015. There have also been 23 goals and numerous man-of-the-match displays. Yet he cannot consider himself undroppable, and especially while Guardiola continues to deploy a system containing a three-man midfield in which Fernandinho provides the defensive support to two playmakers.

De Bruyne is competing to fill one of those spots not only with David Silva but also Bernado Silva, who is increasingly getting up to speed after his late arrival from the Confederations Cup and having signed from Monaco for £43.6m in May. Then there is Yaya Touré and Ilkay Gündogan to consider, with the latter returning to City’s matchday squad on Saturday for the first time since tearing cruciate knee ligaments in December. The competition is fierce and standards for those involved in the battle for recognition simply cannot drop.

De Bruyne appears to be aware of that if his display here is anything to go by. Deployed alongside David Silva for a fourth league match in succession, he tormented those in red from start to finish, starting off in a right-sided position but continuously moving across and through the lines. On 20 minutes he popped up on the left and caused Liverpool’s right-back Trent Alexander Arnold such concern with his incisive running that the teenager, so assured so far this season, found himself with no other option but to yank the midfielder down just outside the area and subsequently receive a yellow card.

Five minutes later came De Bruyne’s first assist and it told you so much about his assurance and ability. There was a touch to control the ball after it came his way from Fernandinho inside the centre circle and then, with nonchalant ease, a perfectly weighted through ball to set Agüero running free through the heart of the visitors’ defence. The Argentinian’s goal made it six from six home league games against Liverpool.

The second assist, in first-half stoppage time, was more straightforward but no less perfectly executed – a left-wing cross that Jesus fired past Simon Mignolet via a header from an unmarked position – and then, on 77 minutes, came the pass to Sané, which eventually led to the German scoring the first of his two goals. Again De Bruyne was in a central position and, again, Liverpool had no idea how to handle him.

It should be noted that post-Mané’s sending off Liverpool were incredibly poor, all but giving up en route to their heaviest defeat under Jürgen Klopp, but that should not take away from City’s performance, one full of swagger and ruthlessness, and which suggests that for all their defensive frailties, which again were on show here, they have enough in attack to win the title.

And at the heart of it was De Bruyne, the reserved figure who catches the eye time and time again. Drop him if you dare, Pep. “This season he is in a good mood, maybe because he is a father,” said Guardiola. “We are a lucky club to have Kevin.”

The Guardian Sport

Roberto Firmino Stands Tall for Liverpool Amid Familiar Defensive Frailties

London – Liverpool arrive in Germany on Monday in less than ideal shape for their Champions League qualifying play-off first leg with Hoffenheim. Questions are once again being asked about their defensive capabilities following a somewhat shambolic showing at Watford on Saturday and with uncertainty continuing to surround the future of Philippe Coutinho.

Fresh season it may be but for Liverpool that fresh optimism is already being tested. It is too early, of course, for total doom and gloom, and especially so with Jürgen Klopp around. Liverpool’s fiery manager will no doubt have his team fired up for Tuesday’s encounter at the Rhein-Neckar-Arena, instilling in them the belief that they can take a crucial step towards their ambition of returning to the group stages of Europe’s elite competition for the first time in three years.

For Klopp the match represents a return to a venue he knows well from his Borussia Dortmund days while for one of his players in particular, the sense of familiarity will be even stronger as he attempts to emphasise his credentials as a vital part of Liverpool’s pursuit of former glories. Roberto Firmino spent four-and-a-half years at Hoffenheim before moving to Merseyside for £29m in June 2015. During that time the Brazil forward developed a reputation for being one of the most hard-working, astute and creative players in the Bundesliga, something that has burgeoned during his time at Liverpool after a difficult start during the final days of Brendan Rodgers’ tenure at the club.

It was not until Klopp arrived in October 2015 that things changed. The 25-year-old was moved into a central attacking role as part of the manager’s fluid 4-3-3 formation and immediately flourished, and it was somewhat of a shame that Liverpool’s late collapse at Vicarage Road overshadowed another excellent display by their false No9, who is now their actual No9 following a change of shirt number over the summer.

It was Firmino who led Liverpool’s second-half fightback after they found themselves 2-1 down at the interval, using his clever and relentless movement to unsettle Watford’s back four as well as being the man who directly contributed to the two goals the visitors scored in that period – playing the pass that led to the 55th-minute penalty, which he scored himself, as well as the lofted cross-cum-shot that Mohamed Salah converted to make it 3-2 shortly after.

Had Miguel Britos not equalised three minutes into injury time with a goal that was scored from an offside position but nevertheless highlighted Liverpool’s brittleness at set pieces, with Stefano Okaka having done the same via a header after eight minutes, it is likely there would be more positivity surrounding Klopp’s team right now, and specifically focused on their attacking play, which once again was excellent at the weekend.

Salah shone on his debut after his £34m move from Roma in June, while on the other flank Sadio Mané simply picked up from where he left off last season, scoring a sumptuous goal on 29 minutes and generally terrorising those in yellow and black with his devastating pace.

And in between them was Firmino, a player who can be fully appreciated only by being observed in the flesh such is the amount of work he does off the ball, something Klopp alluded to last month: “People say he does not score enough. What?! He is the best player without scoring with how well he reads the game for the benefit of others.”

Having scored 47 times in 151 appearances for Hoffenheim, Firmino has maintained a scoring rate of almost one goal every three games at Liverpool (24 in 80 starts across all competitions) but, as Klopp, says, his benefit to the side is broader than that. There are the runs into channels to drag defenders away, the runs at defenders to start a counter press and, as witnessed on Saturday, the perfectly weighted passes under pressure that led directly to scoring chances, for himself as well as others.

What felt apparent at Watford is that Firmino is now the established leader of Liverpool’s attack, and while it would be devastating for the club to lose Coutinho – with Klopp’s ambiguous comments after the Watford game only adding to the sense that the 25-year-old may well be on his way to Barcelona after all – they at least have another Brazilian who can be relied upon to get, and keep, those in red on the front foot.

Life under Klopp has not been plain sailing for Firmino. The forward suffered a slump in form during the winter months of last season, a period when he was banned and fined £20,000 for drink-driving. But he undeniably appears revitalised and refocused before his return to south-west Germany this week.

Hoffenheim, upwardly mobile under the management of Julian Nagelsmann, pose a serious danger to Liverpool but they will be more wary of their opponents than the other way around, and particularly so of Firmino, the man one German newspaper once described as a “master of moving around without anyone noticing”.

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Joe Hart: ‘I Want to be an England Goalkeeper Playing for West Ham’

London- A dab of make-up cannot conceal the black eye Joe Hart is sporting as he walks into West Ham United’s press room and the topic is swiftly raised: have pre-season preparations at Rush Green taken an unsavoury turn? “Yeah, the induction was to have a fight with Andy [Carroll],” is the retort before the less sensational truth, that he had received a ball to the face while spreading to make a save, follows with appropriate haste.

If Hart had taken a punch he would probably have rolled with it. He will start his loan club’s opener at Old Trafford this afternoon, a year to the day since his absence from Pep Guardiola’s lineup against Sunderland made it abundantly clear that there would be little hope of a future under the current Manchester City regime, and he does not hide the fact his situation is imperfect. Last season’s hurriedly arranged spell at Torino was a means to an end; this summer, at 30 years old, he would have preferred to set down roots than be lent for another 12 months. City would have sold him for £25m but no bid was forthcoming; some players might have sulked but Hart is a pragmatist and, besides, the stakes were too high in a World Cup year. He took the temporary move that offered “the highest standard possible” and the challenge in east London was one he welcomed.

“I think a permanent move was always going to be difficult,” he says. “I don’t think there were too many options for that, if any. That would have been my ideal situation. I’ve always answered questions honestly, and ideally I wanted to be signing a permanent deal somewhere so I could set my life up and have a direction.

“But that wasn’t to be and West Ham have been absolutely fantastic towards me. I can’t be any more grateful to Slaven [Bilic], Mr Gold and Mr Sullivan for coming and making clear that they wanted me to be here, and I’m over the moon to be a part of this club. There wasn’t an awful lot of movement goalkeeper-wise this summer so I’m very thankful to get this opportunity.”

Hart describes the circumstances behind his move as “business” more than once and makes it clear that he did not want to sit on his £4.5m salary at City. “Not everyone in football wants to play football,” he says. “When you become a professional footballer there’s no written contract that says you have to strive to play first-team football. It’s a job at the end of the day but there are a lot of us, myself included, that just love playing football. If I can’t play for my club, and logistics and business mean I can’t be bought or sold but someone’s willing to play me elsewhere, then of course it needs to happen.”

There is no outward resentment towards City although there is equally no indication their goalkeeping travails since his departure for Italy – which have taken in unsuccessful experiments with Claudio Bravo and Willy Cabellero and will, for now at least, settle on the new signing, Ederson – do not puzzle him.

“That’s their problem,” he says of a position that Guardiola has found more difficult to fill than might have been anticipated. “I need to look after myself. I need to be selfish in this situation. My feelings towards Manchester City will never change; I’m eternally grateful to them as a football club. They took me as a 19-year-old boy from Shrewsbury Town, took somewhat of a punt on me and I’ve had some fantastic times. The fans have been so supportive of me, even in the past year, and that’s something that will never die for me.

“But as far as the business side goes, with new managers and opinions, it’s unfortunately football and you’ve just got to take it on the chin. There’s no point in taking it too personally because it’s not all about me. The game moves quickly and you’ve got two choices: you can moan about it, make smart comments and try to work out why it was done or you can just try and get on with it. I’ve taken the latter.”

Similarly there is no direct rebuttal of Guardiola’s view, never publicly expressed but widely held to have crystallised in the buildup to 2016-17, that Hart’s ability to build play from the back was inadequate for his requirements. The implication that he fared perfectly well with a comparable approach in Serie A is clear enough, though, as is the sense he does not consider this a politic time to offer more on the matter.

“I feel I can adapt to what my manager wants,” he says. “It was what Sinisa Mihajlovic wanted [at Torino] last year and I felt like I could do what he asked me to, and at the moment I feel capable of doing what Slaven is asking me to do. It’s the same when I’ve been with England and any manager I’ve played under. I’ve felt comfortable that I can achieve what they’ve asked.”

Hart has the confidence of Gareth Southgate, whose keenness to communicate with his national team players goes down well. The pair have spoken during the summer and Hart was assured West Ham would be an appropriate destination. He remained Southgate’s first choice last season despite the upheaval he had undergone; one imagines it would take a severe downturn for Jack Butland, Fraser Forster or Tom Heaton – whose performances for Burnley last season he describes as “a miracle” – to dislodge him and he hopes a place at Russia 2018 will be a natural consequence of domestic success.

“I want to be an England goalkeeper playing for West Ham, I really do, and that’s my intention,” he says. “It’s a privileged position to play for the country and every single time I put on that No1 jersey for England I’m very proud and excited for what comes with it.”

He will not wear that number for West Ham – “I didn’t feel it was right to take the No1 shirt; I’m currently on loan at West Ham, and I’ve enjoyed a lot of good times in the No25 shirt” – and if star billing is unimportant, then there are others in the squad who can take that mantle. Pablo Zabaleta, his former team-mate at City, was a familiar face when Hart arrived and is “like a brother” to him; more eye-catching still is the arrival of Javier Hernández, whom he once knew as a cross-Manchester rival and he now believes can give the club a spearhead they have long needed.

“I’ve loved his intensity, I’ve loved his professionalism, it’s been great to meet the man and realise he’s the real deal,” he says. The new concentration of title-winning experience – Hart, Zabaleta and Hernández have two apiece – in West Ham’s dressing room should help a side that too often seemed directionless last season. European football is the target.

“I come here with really high demands of my team-mates because I demand a lot of myself,” he says. “I’m here to win games, I’m here to try and help, I’m here to learn. If everyone’s got a similar sort of mind-set we’ve got a dangerous squad.”

It is not a stretch to conclude that the last year bruised Hart rather more than that shiner to his right eye but he is keen to ensure the marks show only faintly. Today will bring boos from the Manchester United support, as always, and the biggest significance will be that it means business as usual.

“Sometimes you have to take a few things on the chin, dig in and work,” he says. “But working hard isn’t a problem for me, digging deep isn’t a problem. That’s who I am and it’s what I’ll continue doing until my body won’t let me.”

The Guardian Sport

Pressure on José Mourinho and Pep Guardiola to Produce Title Challenges

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London- After Antonio Conte led Chelsea to their fifth Premier League crown in his first campaign, Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho embark on a defining 2017-18 season. Defining because the pair were granted a free pass last term. However, Conte’s feat casts a harsh light on how poorly Guardiola and Mourinho performed. Guardiola guided City to an unconvincing third and Mourinho took United to a lowly sixth. As the positions suggest, neither manager was able to mount a serious tilt at the title and thus their respective employers have to find excuses for them and succour from elsewhere.

The City chairman, Khaldoon al-Mubarak, pointed to the rebuilding job his man began, while Mourinho’s two-trophy return, which included the prize of Champions League qualification for claiming the Europa League, was enough for Ed Woodward, the United executive vice-chairman, to move on.

Now, they have to achieve more. The minimum requirement is that Guardiola and Mourinho ensure their team challenge for the title until May. If not, one or both may find themselves out of a job.

Chelsea should be viewed as favourites, despite the bookmakers awarding City the status. Whatever, it is difficult to look beyond a big four of the champions, the two Manchester clubs and Tottenham, last season’s runners-up, in the search for potential champions.

At Chelsea, Diego Costa has become persona non grata and will leave. He is a sizeable loss to Conte’s cause given the Brazilian’s edge and a strike-rate of 20 goals in 35 Premier League appearances last year, which followed 20 in 26 in the 2014-15 title-winning season.

In Costa’s place is Álvaro Morata, bought from Real Madrid for a club record £70m. The test is whether the 24-year-old can be a classic Chelsea Premier League centre-forward in the mould of Costa and Didier Drogba. Last season, Morata scored 15 in 26 appearances – 14 were starts – that totalled 1,334 minutes, an impressive average of one goal every 88.9 minutes. Morata, almost 6ft 3in, also scored the most headers in La Liga.

At City, Guardiola has splurged £199.79m on five players. Four of these are in defensive positions – Ederson, the new No1, and the full-backs Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy and Danilo, the latter also being a stop-gap holding midfielder. Bernardo Silva signed for £43.6m and joins Guardiola’s ever-burgeoning rank of attacking players. This also numbers Kevin de Bruyne, David Silva, Leroy Sané, Sergio Agüero, Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling. The old joke about Arsène Wenger adding another No10 to his Arsenal squad when in doubt might apply to Guardiola and forwards.

Following last season’s travails, City’s campaign will depend on how well a leaky defence is tightened up. Guardiola’s summer spend is yet to include a centre-back despite this being a problem position. Currently, Vincent Kompany is the only established first-choice centre-half and he has been injury plagued in recent seasons. The captain’s two potential partners are the yet-to-do-it John Stones and the underwhelming Nicolás Otamendi. Tosin Adarabioyo is the only other recognised central defender and he is 19 and unproven.

Mourinho’s recruitment has taken in striker Romelu Lukaku, centre-back Victor Lindelöf and midfielder Nemanja Matic at the cost of around £146m. At the transfer window’s start the 54-year-old identified Lukaku as the prime target. After Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s serious knee injury, Mourinho decided Lukaku’s 88 league goals since 2012 – only Agüero has more in that time– made him the ideal spearhead.

Yet might Matic be the recruit that tips the title away from Chelsea and into United’s grasp? His significance can be read from Mourinho describing the midfielder as a genius following his debut in the 2-1 friendly win over Sampdoria. It remains a puzzle why Conte allowed Matic to be sold to United.

His arrival means Paul Pogba will no longer be asked to operate on the peripatetic basis that had him flitting between No6 and No8 and even, at times, No10. Pogba can concentrate on being the surging midfielder the manager wishes, though after United scored a meagre 54 goals – the poorest of last season’s top seven – this has to improved or it will not matter how the Frenchman plays.

Mourinho, who still wants to add a forward, has talked up Tottenham as challengers as they have kept all the players Mauricio Pochettino wants to retain. Yet the manager has, in turn, failed to freshen up his squad – recently he stressed the need to do so to ensure the competition that will help Harry Kane, Dele Alli and company elevate their game. Even if this changes Spurs are unlikely to better their rivals’ strengthening. Chelsea have also added Tiemoué Bakayoko (for £39.7m) and Antonio Rüdiger (£34m), so for Tottenham to finish second again would represent a small triumph.

For Watford, Burnley and Swansea City, the three clubs that finished last year 17th, 16th and 15th respectively, their cause for celebration will surely be if they once more avoid the drop. Watford have a seventh manager in three years in Marco Silva, and he oversaw Hull City’s relegation. Sean Dyche managed to keep the Clarets up for the first time in the Premier League but bringing in just Phil Bardsley, Jon Walters and Jack Cork suggests they will repeat their struggle. And if Gylfi Sigurdsson moves to Everton Swansea will earn a £50m fee but lose his playmaking abilities and last year’s nine priceless finishes. The promoted sides – Brighton & Hove Albion, Huddersfield Town and Newcastle United may – also be in the dogfight at the bottom.

At both ends of the division it promises to be a riveting watch.

The Guardian Sport

How Will Monaco Cope after Losing So Many of their Title-Winning Stars?

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London- Monaco have made a staggering amount of money from transfers this summer and the rumours continue to swirl about Thomas Lemar leaving for Arsenal and Kylian Mbappé joining Real Madrid. Even if their frenzied selling stops now, manager Leonardo Jardim will have to rebuild and re-energise a team that has won Ligue 1, made it to the Champions League semi-finals and then lost £150m worth of talent in three months.

Mendy (£52m), Tiemoué Bakayoko (£39.6m) and Bernardo Silva (£43.6m) have generated the biggest fees so far, but one shouldn’t underestimate how much Monaco will miss players such as Valère Germain (who has joined Marseille for £6.80m) and Nabil Dirar (who is off to Fenerbahce for £4m); the depth they provided last season will be sorely missed, especially if Monaco progress in the Champions League and in France’s two cup competitions.

The club have been proactive in finding replacements, with Youri Tielemans joining from Anderlecht for £21.5m and Terence Kongolo arriving from Feyenoord for £11.5m. Tielemans, a 20-year-old Belgium international, has the dynamism and attacking flair required to become an immediate upgrade on Bakayoko in central midfield; while the versatile Kongolo, who was the youngest player to represent Holland at the last World Cup, can play at left-back or centre-back. Monaco also have a clutch of highly touted loanees returning, including Rony Lopes (Lille), Adama Traoré (Rio Ave) and Allan Saint-Maximin (Bastia). Their spells away were a bit of mixed bag, but given the lack of attacking talent brought in this summer, Jardim will clearly rely on them to some extent.

Monaco’s success in the upcoming season – which starts in earnest on Saturday when they face Paris Saint-Germain in the Trophée des Champions in Tangier – will depend on Jardim’s tactical approach. In his first season at the club, in 2014-15, the team were quite dour and negative. They advanced to the quarter-finals of the Champions League but only really started to impress once Silva, Yannick Carrasco and Anthony Martial were given free rein in attack. The departures of Ferreira Carrasco and Martial – along with Layvin Kurzawa and Geoffrey Kondogbia – the following summer left them lacking in identity the 2015-16 season, when they had to rely on a raft of underwhelming loanees.

The story of Monaco’s achievements last season, however, needs little retelling. Jardim took the bold steps of bringing back Radamel Falcao after his frustrating loan spells with Manchester United and Chelsea, signing Mendy from Marseille and bringing in Djibril Sidibé from Lille to build a 4-4-2 that was attack-minded to say the least. They overhauled the mighty Paris Saint-Germain to win the league and made it to the semi-finals of the Champions League as a result, but now Jardim must once again demonstrate his ability to construct a first XI and squad from the set of players he has been given.

While blessed with the effervescence of Mbappé and the presence of Falcao, the manager is unlikely to deviate from the 4-4-2 system that served him so well last season. Tielemans (or João Moutinho) will replace Bakayoko in midfield and one of Kongolo or Jorge (who was signed from Flamengo for £8m in January) can step in for Mendy at full-back.

What complicates matters, however, is the role that Silva played in the team. Nominally the right-sided midfielder, the little Portuguese playmaker was never limited by his position. He popped up on either flank or in the centre, controlling matches not merely by dint of his individual ability, but by an innate, uncanny ability to adapt his role in different situations. Adept at scoring, playing the creator, cutting inside or stretching play, Silva contributed a thoroughly unique skill-set to Monaco’s approach.

Lopes and Saint-Maximin are both capable of supreme bits of skill, but neither have really been tested at the top level. Saint-Maximin is a superb talent, but he often cut a frustrated figure at Bastia; while a season of managerial tumult and injury made Lopes’ loan spell at Lille more often than not underwhelming.

Both are useful players and full of potential (Lopes is 21, Saint-Maximin 20), and will they will certainly be called upon as the team rotates ahead of European fixtures, but they cannot really be counted upon. In Monaco’s recent friendlies, Jardim has persisted with a flat 4-4-2, with either Lopes or Saint-Maximin playing in Silva’s place. Lopes has played slightly more (Saint-Maximin has also been used as part of the front two) but perhaps a different formation would suit the squad better and not place so much responsibility on two returning loanees.

Sticking with the formation that was so successful last season might seem like the smart move, but Monaco have used different systems in each of Jardim’s years in charge and they might benefit from another tactical tinker this year. Thomas Lemar has been sublime on the left since arriving from Caen, but he also showed some promise as a No10 when he made several appearances in a central role in 2015-16. Freed from having to cover the runs of an overlapping full-back, he could improve further. Playing Lemar off the front two could also give Tielemans more licence to attack – he scored 18 goals and laid on 15 assists last season so clearly has an eye for goal – and it might help Moutinho, who occasionally struggled in a midfield two last season.

Jorge and Terence Kongolo are battling to supplant Mendy at left-back and Sidibé is firmly installed on the right. Neither situation is ideal but if the team operated with a diamond, it would force more positional responsibility from the full-backs. Sidibé struggles in that regard but Almamy Touré, who is a much more capable defender, could step up. The youth-team product is a bit too reliant on his pace in attack but he may already be a more complete player than Sidibé.

Whatever Jardim opts for tactically, a bigger concern could be a lack of depth. Much of Monaco’s rotation last season was down to Silva, Andrea Raggi and Sidibé, a trio of versatile players who can play multiple positions. However, with Silva off to Manchester City, Raggi recently turning 33 and Sidibé doing nothing to convince at left-back, the team are severely lacking in options from the bench.

The willing workers Germain and Dirar are big misses, but Guido Carrillo is a decent enough third striker, and Saint-Maximin, having played a variety of positions in Corsica, may be better suited as a bench player for the time being given his ability to play across the attack. In central midfield, academy product Kévin N’Doram has been increasingly important in friendlies, while former Lille midfielder Soualiho Meïté has also been used extensively, completing a massive overhaul of the side.

The bottom line is that, whether with changed tactics, a less attacking philosophy or some degree of continuity, Jardim will be forced to rely on an even younger squad. It would be foolish to expect the team to contend on multiple fronts as they had last season, but Jardim’s willingness to manage without being wedded to any one approach has paid dividends during his time in Monaco. If he can get the best out of this callow group, the talent is certainly there for similar success, even if it will take a miraculous effort from the manager to do so.

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